Aromatherapy uses pure essential oils to relax, balance and rejuvenate body, mind and spirit. Essential, absolute and resin oils are volatile, fragrant materials extracted from the root, bark, wood, seed, fruit, leaf or flower of a single plant. Steam distillation and cold pressing are used to extract the essential oil from the plant. Essential oils and absolutes are very potent and should always be used sparingly and in conjunction with a reliable reference.
Essential oils contain the odor, taste and medicinal properties of the plant itself, but in very concentrated form, with no base oil, alcohol, water or dilutants added.
Please bear in mind, however, that any herb’s essential oil is many times more potent than the whole herb itself.
Aromatherapy is both an art and a science. Aromatherapists, armed with a technical understanding of an oil’s constituents, artfully blend essential oils to produce new aromas. The results of aromatherapy are very individual. While there is general agreement about the actions of certain oils, aromatherapy texts vary in their descriptions of the properties and characteristics of an essential oil. No two persons are affected by the same essential oil in exactly the same way. Even the same person can be affected differently by the same oil depending on surroundings, time of day or mood.
Essential oils are the highly concentrated, volatile, aromatic essences of plants. Scientists agree that essential oils may perform more than one function in living plants. In some cases they seem to be a part of the plant’s immune system. In other cases they may simply be end-products of metabolism. Essential oils contain hundreds of organic constituents, including hormones, vitamins and other natural elements that work on many levels. They are 75 to 100 times more concentrated than the oils in dried herbs.
Not All Oils Are Created Equal
Some plants, like rose and jasmine, contain very little essential oil. Their important aromatic properties are extracted using a chemical solvent. The end product, known as an absolute, contains essential oil along with other plant constituents. Though not a true essential oil, absolutes are commonly used for fragrancing cosmetic products like fine perfumes.
There are also significant differences between synthetic fragrance oils (made possible by recent advances in chemistry) and pure essential oils. Synthetic fragrance oils are produced by blending aromatic chemicals primarily derived from coal tar. These oils may duplicate the smell of the pure botanical, but the complex chemical components of each essential oil created in nature determine its true aromatic benefits. While synthetic fragrance oils are not suitable for aromatherapy, they add an approximation of the natural scent to crafts, potpourri, soap and perfume at a fraction of the cost.
Aromatherapy practitioners need pure essential oils of the highest quality. Important criteria to consider when selecting essential oils include the following: 100% pure and natural, country of origin, growing season, extraction method (e.g., distillation, expression), plant part used and the reputation of the company providing the oils.
Pure essential oils are most commonly extracted from plants through the process of steam distillation. In this process, steam is introduced into a distillation chamber which contains the plant material. The steam breaks down the plant tissue, causing it to release its essential oil in a vaporized form. The vaporized essences, along with the steam and other substances, pass into a pipe through cooling tanks. The vapors return to liquid form and are separated from the water and captured as pure essential plant oil.
It takes 50 pounds of eucalyptus, 150 pounds of lavender, 500 pounds of rosemary, 1,000 pounds of jasmine and over 2,000 pounds of rose to make a single pound of essential oil! The price of each essential oil is directly related to the amount of plant material needed for distillation.
Expression, also known as cold pressing, is done exclusively with citrus oils. In this method, the oil-containing outer layer of the fruit is pressed and filtered to yield pure essential oil.
Gems of Nature
Pure essential oils, like precious jewelry or fine wine, are the gems of nature — the quintessential life force of aromatic plants, sometimes called the “soul” of the plant. People who truly appreciate the qualities of pure essential oils consider each drop a precious jewel to be savored, enjoyed and protected.
Essential oils absorb into the fluid surrounding the cells beneath the skin’s surface for a variety of effects including deep cleansing, nourishing, rejuvenating and balancing. Essential oils also diffuse into the air to provide olfactory benefits.
Taking time to smell is the best way to learn about and create a personal connection with each essential oil. Reactions to odors are highly individual. Try evaluating the aromas according to the following guidelines:
As you inhale an essential oil for the first time, describe the aroma: Is it sharp? Is it subtle? Is it balanced? Is it light or heavy? Is it warming or cooling? Is it sweet, spicy, woody, floral, fruity, etc.?
Now describe how you perceive the aroma: Do you like or dislike it? Do you associate the aroma with any personal experiences? What emotions do you have that are connected to these experiences? Does the aroma produce those emotions now? Does the aroma affect your awareness: does it rejuvenate, energize or relax?
Essential oils are very concentrated. Their safe use requires they be treated with care and respect. The user should be knowledgeable about their properties and actions before any use. Most personal applications require drops rather than ounces.
- Always read and follow all label warnings and cautions.
- Keep oils tightly closed and out of the reach of children.
- Never ingest essential oils.
- Don’t use undiluted oils on your skin (Dilute with vegetable oils, known as “carrier oils,” such as sweet almond oil or grapeseed oil).
- Skin test oils before using. Dilute a small amount and apply to the skin on your inner arm. Do not use if redness or irritation occurs.
- Keep oils away from eyes and mucous membranes.
- Avoid use of these oils during pregnancy: bitter almond, basil, clary sage, clove bud, hyssop, sweet fennel, juniper berry, marjoram, myrrh, peppermint, rose, rosemary, sage, thyme and wintergreen.
- These oils can be especially irritating to the skin: allspice, bitter almond, basil, cinnamon leaf, cinnamon bark, clove bud, sweet fennel, fir needle, lemon, lemongrass, melissa, peppermint, tea tree and wintergreen.
- Angelica and all citrus oils make the skin more sensitive to ultraviolet light. Do not go out into the sun with these oils on your skin.
- Sweet fennel, hyssop, sage and rosemary should not be used by anyone with epilepsy.
- People with high blood pressure should avoid hyssop, rosemary, sage and thyme.
Absolute: Products, not strictly essential oils, obtained through chemical solvent extraction. Absolutes are highly concentrated, entirely alcohol-soluble perfume material. Absolutes are obtained by alcohol-extraction of concretes, chassis or pommades. Most absolutes will contain traces of ethylalcohol (less than 2%). The final product may be liquid, solid or semi-solid.
Alternative Therapy: Complementary medicinal disciplines that typically use natural, rather than chemical, approaches. Also see Holistic-oriented.
Aromatherapy: The art and science of using pure essential oils extracted from natural botanicals to relax, balance and rejuvenate the body, mind and spirit.
Aromatherapy Benefit: The emotional or physical effect evoked by aromatic essential oils. Examples include balancing, energizing, rejuvenating, cleansing, deodorizing and purifying.
Attar: Extracted through the distillation of flowers.
Ayurvedic: The ancient Hindu art of medicine and of prolonging life.
Balsam: A natural raw material exuded from a tree or plant. Balsams are resinous masses, semi-solid materials or viscous liquids and are characterized by their high contents of benzoic acid, benzoates, cinnamic acid or cinnamates.
Botanical Name: Refers to the Latin name of the plant in the biological classification system. A botanical name is composed of the genus followed by the species.
Carrier Oil: A vegetable oil base in which essential oils are diluted to create massage blends and body care products. Examples include sweet almond, apricot kernel, jojoba and grapeseed.
Certified Organic Farming: Cultivation without the use of artificial herbicides, fertilizers or pesticides. Certification by an independent third party ensures the plants are grown, harvested, transported and processed in ways that protect their integrity.
Cold Press Extraction: See Expression.
Concrete: A prepared perfume material extracted from non-resinous or low resinous natural raw material (almost exclusively of vegetable origin, e.g. bark, flower, herb, leaf, root, etc.) Concretes are extracted from previously live tissue, while resinoids are extracted from plant exudations (not tissue). Concretes are usually solid, waxy, non-crystalline masses. Like absolutes, concretes can come from chassis and pommades.
Diffuser: An aromatherapy accessory used to gently disperse essential oils into the air for olfactory benefit.
Diffusion: The volatilization, or evaporation, of the aromatic components of an oil into the atmosphere through the use of accessories such as ceramic diffuser lamps, electric diffusers and unglazed porous clay diffusers.
Distillate: A product of distillation. For example, lavender oil is the distillate of the fresh, blooming lavender plant.
Distillation: A method of deriving an essential oil from plants using evaporation and subsequent condensation of a liquid (water) through the plant material.
Enfleurage: Age-old method of extracting essential oils using odorless fats and oils to absorb the oil from the plant material.
Essential Oil: A volatile material derived from odorous plant materials from a single botanical form. The oil bears the name of the plant from which it is derived. Distillation is the most common method for isolation of essential oils, but other processes–including enfleurage (extraction by using fat), maceration, solvent extraction, and mechanical pressing–are used for certain products. Younger plants produce more oil than older ones, but old plants are richer in more resinous and darker oils because of the continuing evaporation of the lighter fractions of the oil.
Expression: Method of obtaining essential oil from plant material, such as citrus fruit peel. The complete oil is physically forced from the plant material. Also known as cold press extraction.
Extract: Prepared materials that can be used for perfume, flavoring, and medicinal purposes. Extracts are usually concentrated products obtained by treating a natural raw material with a solvent.
Extraction Method: The method by which essential oils are separated from the plant. Common extraction methods include distillation, expression and solvent extraction.
Fixative: (AKA fixed oil) In perfumery, a material that slows down the rate of evaporation of the more volatile materials in a perfume composition. So-called vegetable oils fall into this category.
Food Grade: Considered safe for use in food by the Food and Drug Administration.
Fragrance: Aroma. Products labeled as fragrances are not pure essential oils. They are derived by synthetic means.
Herbal, Herbalism: Pertaining to natural botanicals and living plants.
Holistic-oriented: A natural, synergistic approach to healing which can include Western empirical medicine but also includes other traditional and innovative ways at looking at the whole person.
Homeopathy: Therapy using plant, animal and mineral substances in dilutions to overcome illness by stimulating the body’s natural immunity. The AMA was founded in 1847 to protect the regular physicians, the allopaths (Greek alloion, “different”) against competition from the well-organized homoeopaths (homoion, “similar”), and from the not so well-organized but popular herbalists, eclectics and midwives. The homeopaths’ “like-cures-like” microdosing, as well as their faith in hypnosis, were legally recognized. Although many homeopaths were dogmatic about their infinitesimal doses, which supposedly cured by calling up the body’s own resources, they had an empirical bias that helped to discredit the cupping, bleeding, leeching and chemical poisoning of the “regulars.” Inoculation, the efficacy of which is beyond empirical dispute, is, after all, like-curing-like.
Insoluble: Unable to be dissolved in a liquid such as water.
Massage Therapy: A hands-on therapy in which essential oils are applied to the body for emotional and physical benefits.
Oleo-resin: A natural or prepared material. Natural oleo-resins are exudations from tree trunks, bark, etc.; prepared oleo-resins are extracted using solvents.
Olfactory: Of, relating to or connected with the sense of smell.
Pommade: Perfume materials obtained by the Enfleurage method (which is carried out almost exclusively in the south of France). The Enfleurage process is applied to flowers that do not yield any appreciable amount of essential oil by steam or water distillation. Pommade actually refers to the saturated fat created out of the process. (This process is hardly used anymore.)
Properties, Chemical: characteristics of essential oils based on their chemical constituents.
Resin: A natural or prepared product. Natural resins are solid or semi-solid, almost odorless exudations from trees or plants formed in Nature by the oxidation of terpenes. Prepared resins are Oleo-resins from which the essential oil has been removed.
Resinoid: A perfumery material prepared from natural, resinous substances by extraction with a hydrocarbon type of solvent. True resinoids contain all the hydrocarbon-soluble matter from the natural starting material, including the resins, but they contain no solvent.
Sebaceous Glands: Present in the dermis. Open to the surface at pores located in the epidermis. Produces sebum (oil).
Sebum: The oily substance produced by the sebaceous glands which function to lubricate the skin and seal moisture into the cells. The level of sebum production determines whether your skin is normal, dry or oily.
Single Note: A pure, 100% natural essential oil: no additives; no adulterations.
Species: Major subdivision of a genus of plants. A biological classification composed of related plant individuals.
Synergistic: A characteristic in which the total effect is more effective than the individual parts.
Synergistic Blend: A combination of multiple essential oils that produce a completely new aroma with a different therapeutic effect.
Synthetic: An artificially produced substance designed to imitate that which occurs naturally.
Tincture: A prepared perfumery material, flavor material or pharmaceutical product. Tinctures can be considered alcoholic extracts of natural raw materials; the solvent is left in the extract as a diluent.
Viscosity: Pertaining to the thickness or thinness of a liquid.
Volatilization: The rate of evaporation or oxidation of an essential oil.